The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism
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The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Rey Chow

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The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Rey Chow

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In late-capitalist Western society, cross-ethnic cultural transactions are an inevitable daily routine. Yet, according to acclaimed cultural critic Rey Chow, the notion of ethnicity as it is currently used is theoretically ambivalent, confusing, indeed self-contradictory, straddling as it does an uneasy boundary between a universalist rhetoric of inclusion on the one hand, and actual, lived experiences of violence and intolerance on the other. To drastically reconceptualize ethnicity in the contemporary world, Chow proposes that it be examined in conjunction with Max Weber's famous theory about the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, which holds that secular belief in salvation often collaborates effectively with the interpellation, disciplining, and rewarding of subjects constituted by specific forms of labor. The charged figure that results from such a collaboration, resonant with the economic, psychological, and spiritual implications of the word "protest, " is what she refers to as the protestant ethnic.

Chow explores the vicissitudes of cross-ethnic representational politics in a diverse range of texts across multiple genres, including the writings of Georg Lukacs, Michel Foucault, Max Weber, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, Etienne Balibar, Charlotte Brontë, Garrett Hongo, John Yau, and Frantz Fanon; the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Marguerite Duras, and Alain Resnais; and the cartoon drawings of Larry Feign. Tracing out hauntingly familiar scenarios from stereotyping and coercive mimeticism to collective narcissistic abjection, the rise of white feminist racial power, and intraethnic ressentiment, Chow articulates a series of interlocking critical dialogues that challenge readers into hitherto unimagined ways of thinking about an urgent topic.

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Transactions of Ethnicity in the Age of Global Capital
In 1997, shortly after President Jiang Zemin’s visit to the United States, the People’s Republic of China released its most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who went into exile and now lives in the northeastern United States. In 1998, before President Bill Clinton’s scheduled visit to China, another well-known Chinese dissident, Wang Dan, was also released and sent to the United States on medical grounds. (Wang is now a graduate student at Harvard.) Soon afterward Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit China since 1989.
Ever since the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989, the issue of human rights has remained in the forefront of China’s relations with the West. There are, of course, multiple dimensions to the definition of “human rights,” but when evoked in relation to China by the Western media, the phrase is invariably meant as a reminder of what China is lacking, such as democracy and freedom of speech for its live citizens and basic humane respect for its political prisoners, whose body organs are reportedly being harvested in a massive, lucrative underground international trade. Indeed, Western, especially U.S., journalism has in recent years identified human rights as the way to make any mainland Chinese story newsworthy, and any slight displeasure at China is enough to instigate yet another round of wrathful accounts about how utterly barbaric this country still remains. When being rebuffed by Chinese authorities on one occasion during Bill Clinton’s historic visit to the People’s Republic in the summer of 1998, one American journalist, for instance, vowed to “do the human rights story every day.”1
In the reports that regularly come to the attention of the U.S. public about the arrest, imprisonment, and maltreatment of political dissidents, about the Chinese government’s connivance at and participation in the trading of body parts from executed prisoners, and about the continued prohibition of public discussions of democracy in what has become a thriving capitalist economy in the PRC, one thing looms large with remarkable consistency: the fraught relationship between what seems to be a universal issue (human rights) and the specifics of a local, particular culture (China). The argument often put forth by the Chinese government in its own defense is that human rights in China cannot be the same as human rights in the West. Accordingly, whereas the West asserts its moral claims on the basis of a universalist rhetoric traceable to the European Enlightenment, China is reduced to a reactive position from which it must and can speak only in terms of its own cultural and local specifics, in terms of its own historical differences. This typical discursive scenario amounts to a division of cultural labor on the international scene; it is one that hardly needs to be elaborated but badly needs to be challenged. Instead of viewing one party, the West, as the holder of some absolute, uncompromisable value and the other, China, as a stubborn, wayward resister to all that is reasonable, it would perhaps be more productive, in light of Foucault’s notion of biopower, to view the West and China as collaborative partners in an ongoing series of biopolitical transactions in global late capitalism, transactions whereby human rights, or, more precisely, humans as such, are the commodity par excellence.
In exiling its political dissidents in single file, while others continue to be arrested and imprisoned,2 the mainland Chinese government is, de facto, setting itself up as a business enterprise that deals in politicized human persons as precious commodities, the release of which, as the logic of commodification goes, is systematically regulated—by the rules of demand and supply and by the continued presence of an interested buyer. It is as if, in order to honor its part in the business relationship, China must act in good faith by constantly maintaining a supply of the goods being demanded by the West. As some prisoners are traded off, others need be caught and put away in order to replenish the national stockpile, so that transactions can proceed periodically to the satisfaction of the trading parties concerned. Scandalous though this may sound, the point is that human rights can no longer be understood purely on humanitarian grounds but rather must also be seen as an inherent part—entirely brutal yet also entirely logical—of transnational corporatism, under which anything, including human beings or parts of human beings, can become exchangeable for its negotiated equivalent value.3 By releasing its political prisoners—who can be seen as a kind of national product—in a regulated manner, the Chinese authorities accomplish the pragmatic goal of forcing Western nations to soften their rhetoric against China and thus of receiving more trading privileges and opportunities over time.
It is important to emphasize that the Chinese are not the only ones to benefit from such releases. Western companies, which eye the Chinese market with candid rapacity but are often inconvenienced by the moral embarrassment of conducting business with a totalitarian regime, also stand to gain substantially from the Chinese government’s calculated moves. In other words, the “humane” release of famous dissidents arises, in practice, from the same cold-blooded logic of economic transactions as what only appears to be its opposite, namely, the egregious, abusive trading of organs from slaughtered Chinese prisoners. The two kinds of trades form a diversified but cohesive globalized financial order: when dead, humans are exchanged in the form of replaceable body parts; when still alive, they are exchanged whole—body and soul—for lucrative long-term trading arrangements that benefit the entire nation. The ostensible trade in nonhuman commodities between China and the West—the clothes, toys, industrial equipment, household accessories, and their like—is concurrently facilitated by this other, unmentionable trade in humans as commodities.
China is, of course, by no means the only country in the world with the habit of abusing human rights. Nonetheless, the unique combination of the trade in both live and dead Chinese in the contemporary situation serves as a crystal-clear example of the politics of ethnicization inherent to the global commodification process, a process in which the specifically Chinese contribution is only part of the problem. With the commodities bearing the distinctive trademark that they are—whether dead or alive, whole or part—victims of their own culture, of being Chinese, the gist of this process is that what is being transacted is so-called ethnicity, which is understood in the sense of an otherness, a foreignness that distinguishes it from mainstream, normative society. Understood in this manner, ethnicity is not simply a static space occupied by ethnics who are, somehow, always already there but, more important, also a relation of cultural politics that is regularly being enacted by a Westernized, Americanized audience with regard to those who are perceived and labeled as ethnic. That is to say, the beliefs, desires, attitudes, and life habits of this audience (the American audience that is watching or reading about China and judging the rights and wrongs of China’s various human right issues, for instance) are as complicit in the construction of such ethnicity as “the Chinese” themselves.
To this extent, the struggle for human rights in China is no longer simply a Chinese but, properly speaking, an Americanized Chinese affair whose immediate participants include the U.S. Congress, U.S. business corporations, the U.S. media, Hollywood actors and directors, U.S. human rights activists, and the U.S. electorate, as well as Chinese political leaders, dissidents, and prisoners themselves. The binary oppositional narrative that underlies this transnational affair is a familiar one: only the Chinese—in the form of “they”—remain so barbaric as to be ready to violate human rights, trade human organs, and use their people as bargaining chips; only “they” would do something that is so unthinkable among “us” in the enlightened, law-bound nations of the West. Even when humanitarian sympathy is bestowed on the dissidents, therefore, such sympathy is inseparable from the acute awareness that they are Chinese, that they are marked by a kind of difference that should be ignored (since we are all human beings) but, nonetheless, noticeably helps ennoble “our” cause (of trying to rescue them). The commodified relations of ethnicity, in other words, are underwritten by the conviction that the other is being held captive within his or her own culture whether dead or alive and that such captivity necessitates protest and liberation. This conviction can be seen as a variety of what Foucault calls the repressive hypothesis,4 with the important distinction that the peculiarly generative capacity of the latter, which (as I discussed in the introduction) specializes in turning a negative, prohibitive idea into a positive, expansive set of possibilities, operates here in biopolitical and cross-ethnic terms. Commercial transactions of ethnic bodies, in this light, become not merely exploitative (as they are often said to be) but also a morally justified course of action that helps free the other and confirm our own moral superiority.
The entrance of the ethnic on the late capitalist global stage is hence a rather dramatic affair. Often appearing in captivity and longing for emancipation, the ethnic-as-commodity cannot simply be understood within the parameters of an older humanism with its existentialist logic but must also be theorized in terms of the forces of an inhuman, capitalistic logic, the roots of which, as Max Weber argues, can be traced back to religion—to the tradition of Protestantism. To chart the complex genealogical affinities among ethnicity, capitalist commodification, and the spiritual culture of protest, it is best to begin with some reminders of the difficult and elusive nature of the word “ethnicity” itself. But before I proceed, let me clarify first of all my use of the words “race” and “ethnicity” throughout this book.
It has often been pointed out that “race” and “ethnicity” are not identical concepts and that a certain distinction between them ought to be maintained. (To some scholars, as the discussion to follow will show, talk about ethnicity is simply a way to avoid dealing with problems of race and racism.) To my mind, however, it may actually be more productive not to insist on an absolute distinction between the two terms at all times, for the simple reason that they are, more often than not, mutually implicated. Their frequent conflation is not the result of mental sloppiness on the part of scholars but rather a symptom of the theoretical fuzziness of the terms themselves, a fuzziness that, moreover, must be accommodated precisely because of the overdetermined nature of the issues involved.
My thinking has been greatly influenced by the remarkable analyses offered by Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. For Wallerstein, arguing from a classical Marxist perspective, race and racism are what accompany the modality of global capital and labor, while ethnicity is subordinate to race as the form of a local cultural or communal process of socialization that is made visible, for instance, in the organization of households. For Balibar, the terms are coordinated differently: ethnicity, like all ideology, is “fictive,” but its very real social functioning is made possible jointly by language acquisition (an open, inclusive process) and racial grouping (a closed, exclusive process).5 My approach to ethnicity is admittedly more closely affined with the paradigm proposed by Balibar, but the classical Marxist questions of labor and capital, insofar as they help explain the class hierarchies of modern society that, in turn, manifest themselves in racialized or ethnicized divisions, also deeply inform my inquiry. If “ethnic” appears to be given a more prominent place in this book, it is not because I fail to grasp the significance of racism but rather because the term “ethnic” as such avoids replicating the residual biologism that is inerasably embedded in the term “race,” situates the problems at hand within culture and representation, marks the discrimination entrenched in dominant ways of thinking and talking about so-called minorities, and allows, finally, for an analysis of the discrimination against “ethnics” that is found within ethnic communities themselves.
Ethnicity: A Universal or Local Category?
Dictionary entries for “ethnicity” often inform one that the word, with its roots in the Greek ethnos (meaning nation or people), was used by Jews and Christians to differentiate the “gentile” and “heathen” and that since the nineteenth century, however, “ethnicity” has also been used in a more generic fashion to characterize cultural, linguistic, and racial communities possessing distinctive characteristics.6 Indeed, the later, modern usage of the term, with its universalist implications (i.e., every person is an ethnic), is what causes some social scientists to suppose that ethnicity is rather too vague a concept to be retained for purposes of rigorous analysis. Max Weber, for instance, attributes to it two main characteristics: ethnicity is, on the one hand, a “subjective” category, pertaining to people’s belief in the particular ethnic groups to which they belong, and, on the other hand, a “political” category, pertaining to the manner in which political states often appeal to ethnicity as a way to gain support.7 From Weber’s social scientific perspective, ethnicity appears to be a category with mythic potential (since it is a kind of narrative of belonging) and is therefore manipulable (it is by appealing to people’s sense of where and with whom they belong that political states manage to exert control over them). While Weber’s definitions are useful in considering the ways ethnicity can be put to practical use for political causes, I believe a critique of the ambivalence embedded in the term in its modern usage is very much in order.
In its modern usage, designating a kind of cultural condition that is descriptive of all human beings, ethnicity has, to all appearances, shifted from its early, religious significance as a term of exclusion and a clear boundary marker (between Jew and gentile, Christian and heathen) to being a term of inclusion, a term aimed at removing boundaries and at encompassing all and sundry without discriminating against anybody.8 This shift, I suggest, is symptomatic of the transformations inherent in the handling of difference, identity, and violence in the post-Enlightenment West, where liberal theoretical claims (with their transhistorical, transcultural, and transracial tendencies) have been steadily gaining ascendancy.9 The unambiguous hostility and xenophobia typical of the premodern boundary-marking gesture, which would henceforth be labeled with derogation as ethnocentrism, are now replaced and displaced by what purports to be an open attitude toward ethnic difference. Because we now understand that everyone is ethnic, so this attitude implies, there should be no more violence and no more discrimination; there should only be humanistic tolerance. The modern usage of the term thus seeks to undo the clear, aggressive binarism that legitimates the separation between “us” and “them,” between the inside and outside of a community. White cultural groups and persons, it would have us believe, are henceforth to be considered just as ethnic as nonwhites, with the emphasis on the crucial equality marker “just as.” Thomas Hylland Eriksen puts it in these terms:
Virtually every human being belongs to an ethnic group, whether he or she lives in Europe, Melanesia or Central America. There are ethnic groups in English cities, in the Bolivian countryside and in the New Guinea highlands. Anthropologists themselves belong to ethnic groups or nations. Moreover, the concepts and models used in the study of ethnicity can often be applied to modern as well as non-modern contexts, to Western as well as non-Western societies. In this sense, the concept of ethnicity can be said to bridge two important gaps in social anthropology: it entails a focus on dynamics rather than statics, and it relativizes the boundaries between “Us” and “Them,” between moderns and tribals.10
Yet if everyone is ethnic, no one is. Some may therefore raise the question: is ethnicity chronologically a thing of the past—is ethnicity obsolete?11 This pacific and progressivist view of ethnicity, however, is obviously not the case in practice, as we observe in the recurrent antagonisms, atrocities, and genocides that take place every day around the world in the name of one version of ethnic difference or another. The massacres in Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe after the fall of official communism; the struggles in Africa among various traditional tribal alliances; the continuing exclusion and debasement felt by peoples of color in predominantly white nations such as the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada; conscious or unconscious anti-Semitic attitudes in the presence or absence of Jews; the battles between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East; the conflict between French and British descendants in Quebec, Canada; the persecution of Chinese in Indonesia; the struggles for independence among Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minority groups against the People’s Republic of China . . . the list can go on. Instead of serving as the occasion for humanistic tolerance of incommensurabilities—a logic that, if followed properly, should mean that the more incommensurable differences there are, the more tolerant people would become—ethnicity as such has often served as the justification for violence and the annihilation of others and, in some cases, a determined abandonment of peace. Rather than encompassing all and sundry, ethnicity seems to have brought about new, immutable frontiers leading to disaffinities and expulsions hitherto unimaginable.
In addition, far from being regarded as a universalism characterizing white as well as nonwhite groups, “ethnicity” is used customarily in a nation such as the United States to refer to nonwhite groups. Ulf Hannerz calls this “the WASP definition of ethnicity,” according to which ethnicity is “a quality which is absent among Anglo-Saxons; which . . . increases among Americans of European descent as you pass over the map of Europe from the northwest toward the southeast; and which is very strong among people of non-European ancestry.”12 This “ethnocentric nonsense” (Hannerz’s term) is reflected, for instance, in the institutional compartment of “ethnic studies” in American universities, where “ethnic” as a rule designates nonwhite peoples and their histories rather than, say, English, French, German, or Scandinavian traditio...

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Citation styles for The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism
APA 6 Citation
Chow, R. (2002). The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2002)
Chicago Citation
Chow, Rey. (2002) 2002. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.
Harvard Citation
Chow, R. (2002) The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.